Does “The Simpsons” Really Have a Problem with “The Problem with Apu?”

The Problem with Apu, a documentary by comedian Hari Kondabolu about growing up Indian with the well-known Simpsons character as the most prominent representation of his people, has been the center of a new and energized discussion about stereotypes and tokenism. Recently, an episode of The Simpsons referenced this debate, and it was criticized, including by Kondabolu himself, for being dismissive.

But the more I think about this scene, the more I’m uncertain that the writers of The Simpsons are actually opposed to Kondabolu. What I believe happened is that the writers tried to be a little too clever for their own good in trying to explain their stance.

The last scene of the episode has Marge reading Lisa a bedtime story while trying to censor all of the unsavory parts, only for Lisa to ask for everything to be kept in. She proceeds to say, “It’s hard to say,” Lisa responds, breaking the fourth wall. “Something that started decades ago, and was applauded and inoffensive, is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” She then looks at a photo of Apu, which says, “Don’t have a cow, Apu.”

Reading this one way, it seems as if Lisa is saying, “Oh well!” and that the people finding Apu “politically incorrect” are wrong. The “Don’t have a cow” can be thought of saying, “This isn’t a big deal. However, the scene, especially the use of that classic Simpsons line, sticks out to me in two important ways.

First, it’s a famous catchphrase from the earliest episodes of The Simpsons TV series originally meant to show Bart’s rebellious attitude, but is now viewed as a relic of its time. As far as I know, it hasn’t been used on the show in years except maybe ironically, and it dates any episodes in which it is used as being of the fairly distant past.

Second, it’s being attributed to Apu, a Hindu. With that in mind, the line can be interpreted differently. “Don’t have a cow” now references the fact that it is morally wrong to eat beef according to Hinduism.

Together, I believe the scene and that photo are highlighting a couple of things. For one, there are parts of The Simpsons once thought irrevocable that in hindsight had to change with the times. The “bad boy” Bart Simpson and his once-signature catchphrase have been supplanted by even more controversial characters with mouths that are far more foul. The Bart of the early 90s wouldn’t last today. The Simpsons is not as immune to cultural shifts as might be assumed for a show that’s been on TV for decades.

The Apu-Hinduism aspect touches on another consideration: cultural context changes how words and phrases are interpreted. A culture that assumes America and whiteness by default has classically resulted in The Simpsons and its particular portrayal of life, but if the presumed target was an Indian demographic all along, how might it have changed?

Together, these two points reveal to me a desire from The Simpsons to approach the criticisms brought up in The Problem with Apu with a degree of subtlety, and the issue is that The Simpsons has never been a vehicle for nuance. Sure, it’s been extremely clever, sure, and some of its humor in the past has required viewers to think a little harder, but an age of social media and the speed at which online discourse occurs means it ended up vulnerable to the harshest interpretations, with no real way to defend itself.

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“Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card” Further Acknowledges Meiling

There’s more and more evidence that Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card is canon to the old anime TV series, not least of which is the fact that it actually acknowledges the anime-original character Li Meiling. Recently, however, Meiling has graduated from “name drop” to “onscreen cameo,” further showing the new anime’s dedication to bringing back the characters fans love.

In episode 6, Sakura and Kero can be seen having a video chat with Meiling, who’s living in Hong Kong. While showing up on a smartphone screen is not as glamorous as, say, flying in and directly participating in Sakura’s adventures, I’m still quite appreciative of her appearance. In this respect, Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card reminds me of Twin Peaks Season 3, when Dr. Hayward shows up on Skype as part of an effort to have as much of the old cast show up as possible. Before that, I assumed Meiling would be more of a Sheriff Harry Truman—mentioned only in passing.

Like the other characters, they even brought back Meiling’s original voice, the now-famous Yukana. Back in Cardcaptor Sakura, Meiling was one of her first big roles. Since then, Yukana’s become a who’s who among seiyuu fans, for roles such as Teletha Testarossa (Full Metal Panic!), Cure White (Futari wa Pretty Cure), and Kale (Dragon Ball Super).

I have to wonder if the staff of Clear Card are giving a nod to all the Meiling fans, because I believe there are few anime-original characters as beloved as her. Even though she isn’t part of the manga, she blends into the first anime almost seamlessly, and for some fans is even one of the major highlights. I might even put her on par with another famous “filler” story that transcended the label: Naru (Molly) and Nephrite in Sailor Moon.

Here’s to hoping for more Meiling!

Two Characters Cut from the Same Wonderfully Terrible Cloth: Chargeman Ken and Stardust the Super Wizard

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I had an epiphany recently: Stardust the Super Wizard is the American superhero comics equivalent of the anime Chargeman Ken!

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Even if you’ve never heard of either title there’s nothing to worry about, as their first point of similarity is that they’re both obscure titles which have garnered fanbases specifically due to their lack of quality. Their second point of similarity is that little effort is made to expand on the characters themselves, as both Ken and Stardust can be defined as 1) heroes 2) who kill villains and 3) that’s it.

The third point of similarity is what allows them to be spoken of in the same breath (not that I think people have), which is that both titles are utterly irresponsible when it comes to the stories they present. I don’t mean that they glorify violence or that they don’t send the proper moral messages or that they’re limited by the cultures in which they were created. The reason why I use the word “irresponsible” is that both Chargeman Ken! and Stardust the Super Wizard consist of adventures where, if one were to stop and think about what goes on in them, they break down into a kind of pure spectacle that isn’t so much morbid or horrific as it is just somewhat…thoughtless.

Chargeman Ken‘s most infamous episode is titled “Dynamite in the Brain.” I’d recommend you watch the video above first (it’s only 5 minutes long) to get the full impact, but to summarize: the episode is about an innocent scientist with a bomb implanted in his head, but rather than trying to figure out a way to remove the bomb, Ken decides to just unceremoniously dump the scientist out of his personal jet. As Ken activates the trap door underneath the scientists, he quickly says, “Professor Volga, please forgive me!” as Volga lands on an enemy aircraft and explodes. The thing that really drives home the sense of thoughtlessness though is the fact that at the end of the episode the characters are talking about how Volga, the man Ken literally ejected out of his ship and watched as he exploded in mid-air, is looking down from the skies above. It’s like giving a eulogy for someone you shot to death five minutes ago and expecting people to take you seriously.

Stardust the Super Wizard, unlike Ken, has a seemingly infinite array of superpowers which have little rhyme or reason, but similar to Ken his application of them shows little in the way of foresight by the character or the creator. Just look at the punishment he dishes out to the villains of his story, where the issue isn’t that his solutions are strangely grotesque but that they almost exist in another dimension of thought.

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Both Chargeman Ken and Stardust the Super Wizard operate on a level beyond even GI Joe‘s image of sanitary militarism or the violent works of Nagai Go. And this is why they’d be the best crossover ever.